View From The Inside
By Randy Freedman
The Lessons of La La Land
Director Damien Chazelle found himself at the center of controversy after the presentation of the 2017 Academy Awards, but almost certainly for a reason other than he anticipated. While presenting the Oscar for best picture, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were mistakenly handed the backup envelope for best actress in a leading role, an award earlier bestowed on Emma Stone for Chazelle’s La La Land. An admittedly confused Beatty and Dunaway initially announced La La Land as the winner, leaving it to the musical’s producer, Jordan Horowitz to interrupt the proceedings with the declaration that Moonlight had really won. But the ensuing doubt and confusion resulted in even more publicity for the already popular musical film and its director.
Having already made the provocative and controversial Whiplash, Chazelle used La La Land to ask his large and rapidly growing following a different set of questions regarding their appreciation of music and jazz in particular.
Emma Stone, Damien Chazelle, and Ryan Gosling
These were questions that we, as a thoughtful and loyal jazz community, need to address:
1. Has combining jazz with other musical styles improved it, ruined it or just made it more palatable to a younger, more modern audience?
2. What is the future of Jazz?
When La La Land’s male lead Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) starts to profess his love for jazz in very narrow and confining terms that draw hard boundaries around what jazz should and shouldn’t be, he verbalizes a controversy, that I for one, have heard debated endlessly within the Chicago jazz community itself.
Sebastian feels that “pure jazz”—which seems to be the “neo-bop” school of jazz artistry in his view—is in trouble and he wants to save it. He wants to show the world how to love “pure jazz.” The film never comes out and says exactly where in the jazz spectrum Sebastian sees himself positioned, but for jazz fans, it’s clear he follows the neo-bop school of thought with a definition of “real jazz” that is both selective and combative.
Neo-bop or “neotraditionalist” refers to a style of jazz that rose in popularity in the 1980s among musicians who found greater aesthetic affinity for
Neo-bop contains elements of bebop, hard bop and modal jazz. But for at least the past 30 years, musicians of the neo-bop movement have bemoaned the addition of rock and hip-hop into the genre, a development usually called fusion jazz. They see this as a virtual death knell for the purity of their music. For the most part, they think that jazz should sound the way it did before 1965, sometimes even shunning electric
Chazelle subtly plays into this with Sebastian, and it’s easy to see that his lead character prefers acoustic piano. Most modern jazz musicians play both acoustic and electronic, but neo-bop followers try to avoid any “computers” in their instruments.
Throughout the film, Chazelle shows reverence for the authenticity of legendary musicians like Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. Sebastian even cherishes owning a particular stool that was used by Hoagy Carmichael. When he is seen with an electric keyboard it’s with a rock band doing covers of pop songs from the 1980s for a pool party or with his friend’s new fusion jazz group. We’re meant to see these gigs as Sebastian compromising his vision.
L.A. Times pop music critic Mickael Wood addressed the question of Sebastian being a proxy Chazelle uses in the film to express his own opinions saying, “Some have suggested that the (modern) sophistication of the original songs ‘Someone in the Crowd’ and ‘Audition’ should lead us to conclude that Sebastian’s position on music isn’t necessarily the position of the film. The director himself tried to make that case recently on NPR’s Fresh Air saying, ‘I definitely don’t personally endorse or espouse Ryan Gosling’s character’s views.’ Chazelle added that he conceived of Sebastian as a version of his close-minded younger self when his idea of art was ‘very exclusionary.’ But that’s not terribly convincing. ... How many more movies about unsmiling jazz musicians can we expect from Chazelle before he cops to sympathizing with their grim determination?”
Many in 2017 might even consider this kind of admiration for neo-bop purity to be dated. But even at the height of the movement neo-bop was divisive. Many neo-bop artists shunned any outside influences and derided fusion music as worthless, taking barbed shots at artists we now consider musical pioneers.
John Legend and Ryan Gosling
Miles Davis was often scorned for “selling out” when he crafted the groundbreaking album Bitches Brew, one of the first great jazz-rock records. To them, Miles was abandoning his roots, resorting to cheapened music to move records. As with many artistic debates, taste hardened into ideology—those who followed in Davis’ footsteps were considered by some to be morally inferior. Only in recent years has the neo-bop school of thought lost ground. Now, most of the movement’s advocates have passed on or bowed out to make room for the next generation.
Many of today’s artists seem to feel that letting go of these conservative notions is the best way to “save jazz.” La La Land presents these arguments in the form of “Keith,” the fusion artist played by John Legend in the film. His words sound reasonable when he asks Sebastian how he’s going to revolutionize jazz by being a traditionalist. But Chazelle undermines the character of Keith by giving his band a cheesy ‘80s sound that is meant to seem completely disconnected from his jazz roots. For extra measure, he also uses a gratuitous stage show complete with dancers, a luxury few modern jazz artists could afford or would even consider. It’s almost as if the movie seems slanted against current jazz, presenting a version of fusion that sounds nothing like the contemporary jazz scene.
Most contemporary jazz artists refuse to be fixed on the idea of purity; they’d rather push jazz to evolve. Despite what La La Land might have you think, the genre has already reckoned with and resolved the debate over the sanctity of jazz. And though it’s tempting to say that the genre is in trouble, look around and you’ll see the blood of the music flowing all around and through contemporary music.
Twenty years ago, hip-hop would have been considered blasphemous to jazz purists who didn’t think hip-hop was “real music.” It may sound ludicrous to the modern jazz fan, but back in the ‘80s and ‘90s this was absolutely a common belief, and one that La La Land shares to its own detriment. Ironically, a movie that venerates the jazz greats of the past could stand to learn a lesson from one of the most iconic musicians of the genre: Miles Davis. Davis was never opposed to traditional jazz, but he preferred to push forward and experiment with new ideas, a notion explored in Don Cheadle’s 2016 film Miles Ahead. That film has its own flaws, but it does a better job of presenting the benefits of freeing the reins of jazz.
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter
In the final scene in Miles Ahead, Cheadle, as Davis, breaks from the fictional story to play a concert in the present day. His band is filled with some of the biggest stars of the genre: legends Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, and newcomers like bassist Esperanza Spalding, keyboard artist Robert Glasper and blues rock guitarist Gary Clark Jr.
In my mind’s eye, this moment of collaboration gives us a glimpse of how jazz works at its finest moments. And, it’s the most hopeful blueprint for a long and productive future for jazz that I can envision. It’s a carefully plotted or totally improvisational exchange between artists—whatever the styles, whatever the backgrounds. This moment might seem overly deliberate, but it offers no pretense either. It carries a simple message: let the music grow.
By contrast, it’s hard not to detect a whiff of ideological snobbery to La La Land. The movie will undoubtedly continue to rack up awards and proudly introduce newer generations to jazz. But if Sebastian, and perhaps Chazelle, really wants to save jazz, the solution might be to let people freely choose what they enjoy about the music. La La Land shows that most people will like jazz if it’s given a proper introduction. Perhaps Chazelle should step outside of the film’s narrow range of vision and realize this too.
Chicago freelance writer Randy Freedman is a jazz connoisseur, photographer, food critic, humorist and devoted music fan. He’s a regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine.